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How social media, partnerships and lemon meringue helped a small town Nebraska cafe thrive
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How social media, partnerships and lemon meringue helped a small town Nebraska cafe thrive

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NEWMAN GROVE — Retired teacher Laura Nelson is used to seeing her small town send its children, and its dollars, off to bigger cities.

But lately, from her regular seat at the cafe table, she’s witnessed a reversal of fortune. City folks are spending their money in her hometown. “The cafe has managed to bring them up here,” she said.

Business is booming for the Newman Grove City Cafe. A social network of Nebraska foodies have turned the out-of-the way spot — two hours from Lincoln or Omaha, too remote to spot on Google Street View — into a destination.

Newman Grove, a 700-person town straddling the Madison and Platte county line, doesn’t have an obvious way to create buzz. It isn’t a famed author’s hometown; there’s no National Scenic River running by, no towering rock landmark on the horizon.

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The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove’s downtown business district.

But it is the adopted home of Dawn and Adam Witchell. They’re native Omahans who have unexpectedly turned the town’s main drag, Hale Avenue, into a two-way street for commerce.

In 2020, when many restaurants closed, City Cafe sales spiked 30%. The cafe will bust its sales record again this year.

It’s a testament to the reach of social media, the romance of the road trip, and the fact that cooperation — and a sweet slice of lemon meringue pie — can bridge our rural-urban divide.

On the Friday that Nelson met her 8 a.m. coffee group at the cafe, David and Megan Holtorf drove northwest 120 miles from Omaha for lunch.

David, a financial adviser, and Megan, a banker, met up with David’s college friend, a commodities broker who lives 24 miles away in Columbus. It was a “trek” they’d been itching to make since Megan heard of it on Twitter.

“I just liked the story,” she said. “I’m from a really small town. I want to see places like this succeed.”

Still, a four-hour round trip for lunch? In a time when you can work from anywhere, you can take a lunch break anywhere, too.

David took a work call on the way up. Megan admired the scenery: horses swishing their tails in the shadow of a sagging barn, the yellow flash of a meadowlark streaking past, endless acres of corn bending in the breeze.

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City Cafe waitress Morgann Johnson, a senior at Newman Grove High School, takes an order over the phone.

After lunch they lingered at their corner table as the packed dining room emptied, the cowbell on the door jingling each time it opened. Their burger baskets were empty, but the Holtorfs took some treats to go: a clamshell of gooey cinnamon rolls and a stack of scotcheroos.

Their friend, David Franzen, has an office in nearby Humphrey. He vowed to start picking up lunch for the team.

“You can’t find this anymore,” Franzen said. “Every town has a Casey’s, and once you get a Casey’s, you lose a cafe.”

To get here, the Witchells swam upstream in Nebraska’s urban migration.

They resigned their Boys Town positions, pulled their daughter from a Millard school and spent $35,000 to buy the cafe from its longtime owner.

They gave it three years to succeed or fail.

Seven years and a second daughter later, they work side-by-side on a hectic Friday while the waitress hustles out baskets of fried cheese balls.

Adam mans the grill, flipping an egg over-easy and draping bacon over a burger. Dawn squeezes sriracha mayo on a toasted bun, and wraps the whole thing in checkered deli paper.

A customer waits while Dawn snaps a foam container closed and sketches a cartoon burger on the lid. “You didn’t want to get back to work, did ja?”

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From left: Sam Torres, his son, Sammy, 3, his wife Nicole Torres, and his son, Jeremiah, 1, order lunch from waitress Morgann Johnson at the City Cafe in Newman Grove.

When the midday rush is over, Dawn closes out the register and walks a block to the bank. Adam takes out the trash, hangs up his apron and grabs the keys for his afternoon school bus route. The principal convinced him to help out “temporarily” — six years ago.

Looking back, the Witchells see three steps to cafe success.

First, focus on the locals. They’re the reason the new owners held back on a total menu makeover — adding trendy poutine and sriracha burgers, sure, but also keeping pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Second, invite outsiders in. Adam, helming the cafe’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, used those networks to accelerate sales during the pandemic, when vacations were out, supporting local restaurants was in and social life moved online.

At first, income plummeted when COVID-19 closed the dining room. The Witchells switched to takeout.

It wasn’t long before the takeout was taken way out.

Omahan Jen Bauer, who’d been to the cafe just once, needed to escape her Elmwood Park neighborhood.

“I was bored, just bored, out of my mind,” Bauer said. She figured she wasn’t the only one who could use a slice of stellar pie. Maybe she could bring a couple back to Omaha?

Her whim became a plan. Adam promoted; Dawn baked. Soon Bauer had 48 pies in the back of her station wagon, headed for a west Omaha Target parking lot where she passed them out to strangers from Twitter. Partners in pie.

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Owner Dawn Witchell makes a peanut butter pie in her Newman Grove cafe’s kitchen. To the left is waitress Morgann Johnson, a senior at Newman Grove High School. 

“I was going to get pies for friends, and ended up having 50-some friends,” she said.

The Omaha Pie Run was born, generating more customers and attention.

Former Husker football player Matt Vrzal has family in Newman Grove. He sells City Cafe pies at his Omaha pizza place Piezon’s. Today, half of the 40-plus pies the cafe sells weekly are sold in Omaha, adding thousands of dollars in annual sales.

The cafe staged a beer-and-pie pairing event with La Vista brewery Kros Strain. The brew also makes a cameo in the cafe’s beer cheese soup.

In an age of division, “We slowly made connections with people across the state ... just tagging each other, or supporting small businesses,” Adam said.

In their final secret to success, the Witchells have spread the wealth in rural Nebraska, generating business for others in a virtuous cycle of commerce.

Their pie is now sold at a coffee shop 15 miles west in Albion.

They boost small-town businesses on social media, retweeting The Mixing Bowl in Gering, the Wahoo Bakery, Susan’s Books & Gifts in Aurora.

Locally, the Witchells refer customers to Sixth & Hale, Newman Grove native Bonnie Gerloff’s boutique across the street. She in turn refers customers to B&M Antiques and Architectural Salvage, a multi-warehouse picker’s paradise.

“The town realizes we have to work together or it isn't going to work,” said Tom Temme, owner of the nearby Shell Creek Market grocery.

Generations ago, towns such as Newman Grove were self-sufficient, said Patrick Gerhart, fifth-generation president of the local bank.

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Down the street from the City Cafe, Sixth & Hale owner Bonnie Gerloff sells home decor items.

Newman Grove is still thriving, he says. But it can’t grow without more local kids like Gerhart moving home and more people like the Witchells moving in.

Gerhart wonders: Will there be opportunities for my kids when they graduate?

“The question is the longevity of it.”

Dawn wonders about that too. How to find work-life balance, when her kids eat dinner too many nights at the cafe while she rolls pie crusts. When the Witchells had to close shop to take a family vacation.

“We are on a treadmill and the speed keeps increasing, and like, I need to tie my shoe,” she said.

Any solution will involve leaning on others, those people who walk in the cafe from down the street and from five counties away.

COVID-19 and the small-town cafe remind us: We still crave connection.

“The place is so small you can’t help but connect with people,” Dawn said. “You're in the dining room and we’re in the kitchen, and we’re talking to you.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org

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